Israel miscast as gun-toting society

As the gun debate resurges in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, many try to draw comparisons between the US and Israel when it comes to firearms legislation

soldiers 521 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
soldiers 521
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The perennial debate over gun control laws in the United States ratcheted up to a whole new level in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting spree in December, which took the lives of 27 people, including 20 children. Some pro-gun advocates argued that rather than restricting gun ownership, it is better to flood the streets with more guns to create greater deterrence, citing Israel as a successful model of such a saturation strategy. Yet Israel actually has very strict gun laws and could indeed serve as a completely different model for solving the gun glut in the US.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association of America, was one of the prominent pro-gun voices arguing for the mistaken Israeli model in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. LaPierre called on Congress to fund the establishment of armed police officers at every school in the US as a means of following Israel’s example.
“Israel had a whole lot of school shootings until they did one thing,” LaPierre said. “They said, ‘We’re going to stop it,’ and they put armed security at every school, and they have not had a problem since then.”
One problem with LaPierre’s assertion is that Israel did not have a “whole lot of school shootings” like the one at Sandy Hook. Indeed, there are armed security guards at every Israeli school, but they are part of a nationwide anti-terror strategy aimed at thwarting trained, disciplined terror operatives from carrying out their missions – rather than preventing psychologically troubled persons from going on shooting rampages.
There is a widely held misperception, created in part by the media, that Israel is a gun-toting, highly militarized society where firearms are readily available not only to security guards and IDF soldiers but to any Israeli, even an ultra-Orthodox mother of five.
However, nothing could be further from the truth and the differences in gun control laws between Israel and the US are quite glaring. Turns out it is hard to even buy a BB gun in Israel.
Yakov Amit, head of the Firearm Licensing Department in Israel’s Public Security Ministry, recently told The Jerusalem Post that “there is an essential difference between the two. In America the right to bear arms is written in the law. Here it’s the opposite... only those who have a license can bear arms and not everyone can get a license.”
It is estimated that the number of firearms in the US equals the population size of 315 million.
Meanwhile in Israel, as of 2010, the number of legal privately owned firearms was below 180,000 in a population of over 7 million. A right in the US is considered a privilege in Israel.
The nature of one’s job is among the three criteria set by the Firearm Licensing Department in 1995 to determine who can legally own a gun.
The change in policy came in response to a 1992 tragedy in which Eitan Mor, a legally armed security guard, entered a public mental health clinic where he had previously been treated and killed four social workers with a semiautomatic weapon.
The more restrictive gun policy which resulted from that tragedy has limited firearms to: (i) people who reside or work in dangerous geographical locations, (ii) people employed in lines of work requiring extra security, and (iii) groups involved in the country’s public security.
With 7,933,200 inhabitants and 163,274 registered private firearm licenses, only 2.06 percent of Israel’s population is packing heat, compared to an estimated 50% of US households, meaning that Israel is not the guntoting society some make it out to be.
Additional reforms in 1999 further restricted firearm licensing, supervision and training, and reduced the number of firearm license holders drastically. In 1999, some 72,000 registered firearm owners lacked a valid license, but this dropped to 33,000 after the reforms were enacted. As of March 2012, this number dropped to less than 9,000. It is thought that most of these are elderly people unaware of the new requirements.
Today an IDF reservist, Moshe (real name withheld by request) was at one time a security guard in the City of David, a small Jewish community next to the Arab neighborhood of Silwan. In speaking with The Christian Edition, he compared and contrasted his experience with firearms as a soldier, security guard and reservist.
In each of these roles, he never personally owned a gun. Though he went through the extensive licensing process to become a security guard and renew his license every three years, the security company that employed him owned the gun.
“I received extensive training in all three roles,” said Moshe. “In addition to classroom training, I was trained on self-defense measures that focused on using the gun, classified as a ‘hot weapon,’ as a last resort.” When confronted by ‘cold weapons’, such as rocks, knives, rods or clubs, he was instructed to subdue the cold weapon holder without using his gun.
“In fact, I was not permitted to use my gun against such threats. I was only to withdraw the weapon from its holster when my life was threatened.
The gun was strictly for self-defense,” he explained.
In addition to a medical exam, his mental health was tested by exposure to high-pressure, high-stress environments.
His reactions were closely monitored to determine if he was psychologically fit to carry and handle a weapon. Under today’s tighter restrictions, a person like Mor would not be approved for a firearm license. All gun license holders are regularly “monitored,” noted Amit. “We check with the police and the Health Ministry on a quarterly basis as well as any time they renew their license. So we scrutinize more closely than in the United States.”
In Moshe’s work as a City of David security guard, he was permitted to take the firearm home since the trip to work took him through dangerous areas, but this is not true for all security guards, as some have to turn in the gun before leaving their workplace. At home, Moshe’s gun was legally required to be under two locks. And as of January 2013, a new law now requires firearm owners to prove they have a safe at home to secure the gun.
Likewise in his military experience, Moshe noted that since some bases are considered safer than others, soldiers are required to leave their weapons on base. Conversely, the more dangerously located bases permit soldiers to take their weapons off base when passing through unsafe areas, such as nearby Palestinian villages.
In either case, an IDF inductee receives his weapon at a special swearing-in ceremony about three weeks into basic training and must always give account for its whereabouts and every round fired.
Firearms training is rather extensive.
Moshe was required to document supervised monthly training at a shooting range during his days as a security guard. As a current IDF reservist, he is not permitted to have a gun except during reserve exercises. He receives the firearm when he reports for duty, undergoes several days of training, then returns it after the service ends.
Unlike US law, Israeli law also has strict ammunition limits for privately owned guns.
“Once they order their firearm from a gun store, they are allowed to take it home with a one-time supply of 50 bullets which they cannot renew,” Amit stated, adding that it is a crime to be found with more bullets than is permitted. Ammunition limits for licensed security guards vary based on location and what is being secured.
Moshe was permitted three clips, or 60 bullets, during his security guard job at the City of David. He is not allowed to have bullets in his possession as a reservist.
It is clear that Israeli and American gun control laws differ greatly, and much of the difference stems from the unique history of each nation.
America started out as a frontier nation with a citizen militia that was armed to provide meat for the table and guard against the oppression of King George. Many Americans still enjoy hunting and feel the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms is all that is preventing total government control over the people, while others decry the ease and excess of gun ownership.
Meantime, Israel has a citizen army that is defending less against domestic crime and more against military threats and terrorism. Its gun laws stress competence, responsibility and accountability. Israel’s experience does have lessons for America, but saturation is not one of them.